On March 5, 2019, the USPTO hosted a rare and special event in recognition and celebration of female inventors and the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”). The celebration commenced with opening remarks from Laura A. Peter, Deputy Director of the USPTO, followed by keynote speeches from Congresswoman Martha Roby, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross, and USPTO Director Andrei Iancu. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, the speakers commemorated a long list of women innovators and their technological contributions that have, unbeknownst to many, infiltrated everyday life and continue to play a significant role in the advancement of the sciences.
The highlight reel of female innovators and influencers included the following:
- Clara Barton (1821-1912) – In 1854, Clara Barton was hired as a clerk at the USPTO, becoming one of the first women to receive a federal government clerkship at a salary equal to her male colleagues. After leaving the Patent Office in 1857, she returned as a copyist in 1860 to advocate for women in public service.
- Margaret E. Knight (1838-1914) – Knight designed a machine which folded and glued paper to create a flat-bottomed paper bag, an invention still used today. When a male colleague, Charles Annan, tried to patent the invention as his own, Knight filed a patent interference lawsuit. Annan unsuccessfully argued that a woman “could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities.” Knight won and was awarded the patent in 1871.
- Josephine Cochrane (1839-1913) – Inventor of the first commercially successful automatic dishwasher. Cochrane was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 for her invention.
- Maria Beasley (1847-1904) – Beasley successfully designed at least 15 inventions, including a foot warmer, an anti-derailment device for trains, a barrel-making machine, and an improved life-saving raft. Despite her remarkable achievements, the 1880 US Census listed Beasley as an “unemployed housewife.”
- Mary Anderson (1866-1953) – Following a 1902 visit to NYC, during which Anderson rode on a trolley car where the driver had to open to front window panes to see through the bad weather, she designed the first effective model of windshield wipers, now standard equipment in every car.
- Sarah Breedlove/Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) – The first child born in her family after the Emancipation Proclamation, Walker developed a line of hair care products specifically designed for African American hair. With her expanding business and influence, Walker became the first female self-made millionaire in the United States.
- Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) – A movie star who developed a “secret communication system.” By manipulating radio frequencies, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel. The invention would galvanize the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines, and other wireless operations possible.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony followed the keynote speeches, designating the USPTO auditorium in the Madison building as the renamed “Clara Barton Auditorium” in honor of one of the recognized influencers. Noting that this is the first public space at the USPTO campus to be named on behalf of a woman, Director Iancu proclaimed, to much applause, “it’s about time.” He and Secretary Ross also spoke to the need for more patent applications naming female inventors and applicants. Citing the USPTO’s recent February 2019 report, “Progress and Potential: A profile of women inventors on U.S. patents,” the speakers noted that women still comprise only a small minority of patent inventors. Although the first woman to receive a U.S. patent was in 1809 (Mary Kies, for her method of weaving straw and silk to make hats), as of 2016, the share of patents that list at least one woman as an inventor was only 21%. Director Iancu also addressed the promising growth of the number of female employees at the USPTO itself, with women now constituting about 45% of the workplace as a whole and 40% of senior or managerial positions.
The celebration then shifted to a panel discussion to delve into the specific challenges that women in STEM face and how to overcome those obstacles. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Karen Kelley moderated, with distinguished panelists consisting of The Honorable Pauline Newman of the Federal Circuit, Veronika Folz (rocket scientist and Director at Northrop Grumman), Susann Keohane (IBM Global Research Leader and holder of over 175 patents), and Nicole Black (Harvard PhD student and inventor for start-up PionEar). The major takeaways from the panel discussion included a call to action for men and women alike to encourage interest in technology and the sciences for children (particularly young girls), and for women to “lean in” to discussions at the table with male colleagues, while recognizing and calling out the contributions of fellow females. For women in STEM and those related professions in particular, despite the known challenges and obstacles in the field, the message was crystal clear: “stick with it, because we need you.”